Daniel Kowalski came to know the rarefied place swimming
occupies in Australia when he picked up the phone in the kitchen
of his Melbourne house one July afternoon in 1995 and heard a
man promise to kill him. Kowalski, then 20, had just beaten
Kieren Perkins--owner of multiple world records, an Olympic gold
medal and a million-dollar endorsement career, and the most
popular Australian athlete--in one of a series of Grand Prix
freestyle races. Five minutes after the first call the man rang
again and repeated his message: "If you win [again], you're
dead." In the following days letters arrived detailing what
would be done to Kowalski and his coach, Bill Nelson. As the
series' next race loomed, Kowalski couldn't sleep. Any noise
pierced his stomach like a blade. "If someone came up behind me,
I'd jump in the air," he says.
When he next faced Perkins a few days later, in the 1,500-meter
freestyle, Kowalski eyed the crowd and lost badly. It's the one
time he was happy to finish fourth. Two nights later Kowalski
had a dream. He was by a pool, and a man fired a gun at him.
Nelson dived to protect his swimmer and was shot. The noise
jerked Kowalski awake. "The alarm clock went off like the pop of
a bullet," Kowalski says. "It was so loud." The police tapped
Kowalski's phone for five weeks. They never found the man.
Kowalski hasn't won a major swimming championship or even been
to an Olympics yet, but at 21 he has challenged Perkins's
freestyle supremacy by beating him at least a half dozen times
in the last year. He has become a new force in Australia's drive
to supplant the U.S. as the world's leading swimming power.
Problem is, to swim well in Australia these days is to achieve a
level of celebrity beyond sports, a level at which movie stars
dwell and at which the adoration of certain troubled fans can
turn to black rage for no reason. Kowalski isn't the first
Aussie swimmer to receive death threats. Asked to name the
toughest part of swimming fame, another Australian freestyler,
Hayley Lewis, unhesitatingly says, "People stalking you." A man
sent her roses on her birthday once and followed up by
bombarding her with irate letters. One day she walked up her
driveway, and he was standing at the door.
Australia's frenzy over its swimming stars is usually more
benign, of course. It merely magnifies episodes such as
breaststroker Samantha Riley's recent positive test for a banned
headache medicine and the warning she received from the
pooh-bahs of international swimming; Riley's romantic
relationships with Australian rugby bad boy Julian O'Neill and
now with Norwegian speed skater Johann Koss; butterflyer Scott
Miller's arrest for battery last August in Atlanta; and Great
Britain's bid last September to lure away Australian coach Don
Talbot. These things ferment in the public's mind until they
take on the proportions of national soap opera.
For the moment no character is more scrutinized than the surging
Kowalski. Perkins, after all, is a cultural icon Down
Under--"the Michael Jordan of Australia," as Talbot says--having
dominated for five years a sport that's at the core of this
island nation's psyche. One newspaper poll in January found that
91% of Australians feel that the hugely confident Perkins
"symbolizes" their country, and Aussies have long expected that
at the Atlanta Games he would spearhead their rise as a swimming
power. That has changed now.
At Australia's Olympic trials in April, Kowalski qualified in
three freestyle events while Perkins went into the final day
still needing to make the team. After Perkins bombed out in the
200- and the 400-meter frees, nearly one fourth of the
nation--about 4.5 million viewers, according to A.C. Nielsen
Australia--tuned in to see him plod to second place in the 1,500
behind Kowalski to earn a trip to Atlanta. Perkins was
noticeably humbled. "There was a definite negativity in his
voice, and that's a side I've never seen before," Kowalski says.
"I was just staring at him, thinking, Is this the same guy?"
To understand Kowalski's shock, you must understand that
although he is one of only four active swimmers--along with
Perkins, countryman Glen Housman and Jorg Hoffmann of
Germany--to break the 15-minute barrier in the 1,500, he is no
Perkins in ability or swagger, and he knows it. He has never
gotten within sniffing distance of Perkins's world-record times
in the 400 or 1,500. Since announcing himself with a third-place
finish at the Australian Olympic trials in 1992, Kowalski has
been known as a diligent but fragile swimmer. He has a
degenerative condition in both rotator cuffs. He tore his right
biceps in the fall of '94; after starting to run to keep in
shape, he sustained a stress fracture in his right ankle. While
biking to a rehabilitation session for the ankle, he was hit by
a car. Kowalski is a fine athlete "within water," he says with a
laugh, "but get me on land, and I'm an accident waiting to
Until recently he had lost dozens of races to Perkins and
Housman, thereby building a reputation for buckling in big
events. After manhandling Perkins at the 1994 Commonwealth Games
trials, Kowalski wilted at the games themselves, losing to
Perkins in the 1,500 final by 12 seconds. At the '94 world
championships in Rome, Kowalski was ill before the 1,500 final,
where he finished second behind...guess who? "He was first,
yeah," Kowalski says. "Story of my life."
Not anymore. "As far as the armchair critics are concerned, I'm
gone," says the 22-year-old Perkins. "Now Daniel's the Number 1
swimmer." Only Kowalski remains unconvinced. It's as if he has
spent so long in Perkins's shadow that he doesn't know how to
handle the sun. "Nobody, not even me, has known what I'm capable
of doing," he says. "Something has always gone wrong."
With those words Kowalski hints at Australia's greatest sporting
fear. Its tennis has become mired in mediocrity, and Greg Norman
has become a golfing Gallipoli. So who better to carry the
dreams of the nation than an athlete who is used to coming in
second? Story of my life. Sure, Australia has produced gold
medal brilliance in swimming in the past 30 years, from Shane
Gould to Jon Sieben to Duncan Armstrong, but its athletes have
an equally impressive record of collapsing under great
expectations, most notoriously when 1,500 swimmer Steve Holland
rolled into the 1976 Olympics with 11 world records under his
belt and rolled out with Australia's only swimming medal, a
bronze. When, despite high expectations, no other Australian won
swimming gold at the '92 Barcelona Games, Perkins had to salvage
Aussie pride with a 1,500 victory.
Perkins emerged from those Olympics with the image his country
wants for itself: clean-cut and unbeatable. Even now he refuses
to lower his goals, saying he'll make a run at his 1,500 record
of 14:41.66 in Atlanta. "If I'm fit and healthy, I'll be fine,"
Perkins says. "I've got no worries."
Such cockiness is usually not well received in Australia. "Talk
about winning here? Christ, you don't say that," Talbot says.
"If you do, somebody hopes like hell that you fall over and
break your nose."
Talbot knows. The man derided as Ming the Merciless early in his
career has made plenty of enemies--many of them his own
swimmers--since he became full-time national coach in 1989. He
has been accused of everything from intimidation to arrogance to
marching into a women's locker room unannounced. In '90 more
than half of the Australian team drafted a letter of complaint
about him but never sent it to anyone. Two years later he and
Housman's coach, Ian Findlay, ended up in the pool after a
scuffle, part of a string of events that led to Talbot's being
derided on the floor of Parliament. "We need a head coach who is
going to encourage our swimmers, not use Rambo tactics to
retaliate when his oversized ego is threatened," thundered Labor
member Con Sciacca.
But while many have questioned Talbot's methods, few doubt his
intentions. Talbot wants to make Australia the No. 1 swimming
power by the time of the 2000 Sydney Olympics, and his efforts
to do that have brought to an end the Aussie era of low
expectations. "When I came in '90, people weren't talking of
gold medals; they were talking of making finals," Perkins says.
"Now people are talking of Olympic medals. They want to break
world records and be the Number 1 swimming nation. That's
starting to become a reality."
Proof of the Aussies' progress came last summer when a
contingent led by Kowalski, Lewis, Miller, Perkins, Riley and
butterflyer Susie O'Neill finished just two gold medals behind
the U.S. at the Pan Pacific Championships in Atlanta. The
absence from the competition of swimming's X factor, the
Chinese, left plenty of questions, but the Diggers left
convinced that the Yanks have declined plenty since Barcelona
and are ripe for a kicking. "The American guys are arrogant,"
Kowalski says. "And I mean that in the nicest way. They walk
around the pool as if they own it, they talk really loud and
they chew their gum. We love beating them. It's something we
strive to do."
They strive because they consider swimming their sport.
Australia's cities are scattered along the coast like so many
jewels tossed in the sand, so most everyone lives within a day's
ride of the sea. Children flock to learn-to-swim programs, and
the culture resonates with the rhythm of pounding waves. "That's
the Australian way," Lewis says. "Go to the beach, go to the
pool; it's just swim, swim, swim."
On summer Sundays the Australian Olympic team doesn't rest; it
hurls itself into the sea to partake in the nationally adored
sport of surf-lifesaving, a combination of running, swimming and
paddling that springs from the training followed by lifeguards
and is far more fun than counting laps in a pool. "This is part
of our life," says Ian Hanson of the Australian Olympic
Committee, ticking off the names as a troop of swimmers sprints
by on foot at Kurrawa Beach. "There's Deane Pieters, who was on
the 4x200 free relay in Barcelona; there's Scott Miller, who'll
be in Atlanta; and Grant Hackett, who should be the boy most
likely to [star] in Sydney. They all grew up on the beach."
A central figure in Aussie swimming history is Dawn Fraser. At
the 1956 Melbourne Games she won the 100 free, the first of
three such golds she would earn in her Olympic career, and led
Australia's swimmers to an unrepeated domination of their U.S.
counterparts. Eight years later, having survived a car wreck
that killed her mother, she won the 100 at the Tokyo Games, then
left a late-night party to try to swipe an Olympic flag from the
Imperial Palace. The prank helped earn her a 10-year ban from
competition, but it also sealed her place as a folk hero. Even
today, no Aussie is more beloved.
But Fraser's success fed into a phenomenon that all athletes
Down Under fear and that even Perkins is feeling. Get too big,
fall the slightest bit short, and you get cut down like a flower
allowed to grow too high. "Australia's funny like that; we call
it the tall-poppy syndrome," Lewis says. She should know. She
went to Barcelona with her compatriots sure she would win a gold
medal, came home with a silver and has never been forgiven.
"It's terrible," she says. "There's nothing you can do about
it." But Lewis will be swimming in Atlanta, and that, too, is
the Australian way. When you're surrounded by water, the only
thing to do is swim, swim, swim.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB MARTINSWIMMING, THE SPORT OF OLYMPIANS (CLOCKWISE FROMTOP LEFT) LEWIS, RILEY, KOWALSKI, O'NEILL AND PERKINS, IS ALMOST AS MUCH A PART OF AUSSIE CULTURE AS THE ABORIGINES [Hayley Lewis, Samantha Riley, Daniel Kowalski, Susie O'Neill and Kieren Perkins on beach cove with two native Australian men]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB MARTINNEW FREESTYLE ACE KOWALSKI (IN FRONT OF BEACH HOUSES IN MELBOURNE) IS SET TO TAKE OFF IN ATLANTA [Daniel Kowalski]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB MARTINTHE LIFE OF RILEY (SHOWN AT SEA WORLD NEAR BRISBANE), AUSTRALIA'S PREMIER BREASTSTROKER, HAS BEEN A SOURCE OF FASCINATION FOR HER COMPATRIOTS [Samantha Riley in water with dolphin]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB MARTINTHE ONLY AUSSIE INSTITUTION AS VENERABLE AS OLYMPIC GREAT FRASER (BELOW) IS SURF-LIFESAVING, WHICH COMBINES RUNNING, SWIMMING AND PADDLING [Australian surf-lifesaving corp marching on beach]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB MARTIN[See caption above--Dawn Fraser]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB MARTINPERKINS, WHO BROUGHT HOME AUSTRALIA'S ONLY SWIMMING GOLD IN 1992, KNOWS EXPECTATIONS THIS TIME AROUND ARE AS HIGH AS THE BRISBANE SKYLINE [Kieren Perkins with skyline in background]